How does one prepare for the mean, vulgar, petty, idiocratic winter to come?
Our friends at Colorado State suggest an answer. “Hardening Off Isn’t Hard: Hardening off refers to the process of acclimating plants from indoor temperatures to the outdoors. Because plants usually are grown in greenhouses (or, as seedlings in our kitchen window!), they've been pampered. They need to be introduced slowly to the elements....”
My life in the hothouse of academe has been all Miracle-Gro and perlite, so I decided to toughen my root ball by heading out to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to see how the Native American Water Protectors and their allies were faring and what would happen if a couple thousand vets longing for action, whatever that might mean, met the forces of militarized corporatism.
By the time Matt picked me up at O’Hare it had already been a long day—an early drive to Houston, a large man on the flight thrashing in the seat next to me and violating my tiny space. Worse, he had a nice watch. But when the flight attendant became grim about his bag in the overhead, and I saw by his passport he was from Equatorial Guinea and realized he spoke no English, I translated. In gratitude he fell asleep on me, leg over mine, arm like a rock python in my lap. I’d thought I was primed for protest, but he was nice and warm, so together we napped the airy hours to Chicago.
The members of our immediate group for Standing Rock were all connected to Matt in some way. In addition to several vets, there was a young writer, Adam, and a videographer, Charlotte, working as a team for Al Jazeera, though the gig fell apart by the end of the trip. Neither had served in the military, but Adam had made a TV pilot in Iraq: “BROS is a TV show about exploring places that are perceived as dangerous and off-limits - and putting those reputations to the test. By finding 'bros' and connecting with this universal sense of hospitality and welcome, we aim to prove just how friendly, fun and exciting a time you can have in the most unexpected places.” He has a book about the Middle East coming out with Norton next year and constantly wore a fur hat he'd picked up somewhere in Central Asia. Late in the drive home Charlotte revealed herself to be the daughter of Toxic Avenger creator Lloyd Kaufman. “He likes to shock,” Charlotte said wearily. “That’s what he does.” Then she showed those in the backseat all the clips of her as a child actor in dad’s films and did the lines and screams. There would be conflict in our group; call it class difference.
And that was the first lesson Veterans for Standing Rock (VFSR) had to offer. So many people came from so many places, for so many different reasons, or none at all, that the event was a blank template with many opportunities for conflict. Yet in aggregate it may have helped bring about what’s being seen as a temporary victory for both the indigenous and for protest itself in the new millennium. As Eric Foner wrote recently of radical movements, “Following different, even contradictory paths may well produce greater strength rather than fragmentation and weakness.”
The four of us who are vets had signed up with the Illinois branch of VFSR, mostly for access to the Oceti Sakowin camp and for legal and medical help if needed. We had agreed we’d convoy separately. Dylan served with Matt in the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, in Afghanistan. Tom, who looks like Odin without his war hammer and was an MP in Iraq, met Matt in his local VFW in downstate Illinois, when Matt came to his town to gather sociological data for a prof. Matt did his undergrad where I teach.
He’s a PhD candidate at Northwestern now, interested in cultural sociology, political violence, moral capital, critical theory, ethnography, and Near Eastern studies. Adam is a PhD candidate at Yale but was also accepted to Northwestern, which assigned him and Matt as “intellectual soulmates.” Charlotte went to Columbia and met Adam there. Dylan has just finished his first year of undergrad at the New School, in anthropology and sociology. Tom tried college for a while, but life intervened, and now he works for the state.
Others who joined our group (or who invited us to become part of them) went to Rutgers and Sciences Po, ASU, Loyola Chicago, University of South Dakota, and elsewhere. Universities—those rotten sinks of liberal bias, generators of mocking memes, repositories of social conscience, succorers of idealistic youth, producers of the National Rhet Corps of comp instructors and former English majors who teach on Facebook how to vet an online source—may have played some significant role at Standing Rock, but it wasn’t always obvious. The “Op Order” issued by Wes Clark, Jr. (Georgetown) for the veterans to “deploy” didn’t even mention liberal views:
“If you’re a conservative, then this is about limited government. If you’re a libertarian and you want freedom for your people. This is it right here. If you’re against money in politics and you don’t want to see our police and soldiers being treated like private employees to beat our citizen’s. It doesn’t matter where you come from in your approach. THIS IS YOUR FIGHT.” [all sic]
The main thing, Clark wanted people to know, was that the confrontation at Standing Rock would be “the most important event up to this time in human history.”
It was getting late, but on the way back from the airport Matt, the news crew, and I stopped at American Science & Surplus for cheap Israeli gas masks. I’ve been CS-gassed many times and don’t care for it, so before we left the store I made sure I got the unfamiliar design on my face, blocked the filter, and breathed in to check the seal. Of course this meant nothing about the filter itself. I told Matt if it was filled with sawdust and bananas I was going to be really disappointed, and he laughed. The joke worried Charlotte and Adam, though, who had never used a mask and asked for a block of instruction. On the drive back to Matt’s place, Charlotte became rightfully obsessed with what other people had for cold-weather gear. After lots more questions she walked to the REI to buy more things but left the tags on in hopes that after several days at Standing Rock she could take it all back.
We staged at Matt’s apartment in Lincoln Park for the 14-hour drive to Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Matt’s wife watched calmly—she’s been with Matt since before the army—and his young twins scampered excitedly. Somebody went grocery shopping; somebody ordered pizza. The other vets repacked their gear—body armor, parts of military uniforms, web belts, military sleeping bags, rucksacks, hearing protection, masks. Matt had a cup. He was very happy with his cup. He pointed out that a rubber bullet to the plums would take the fighting spirit out of anyone. He asked if we’d seen a rubber bullet. He said he’d thought they were the size of a .45 round, but they were more like projectiles from 20 mike-mike shells. He intended to sleep, Queequeg-like, in his body bag from Afghanistan, wrapped in a poncho liner and blanket. Dylan laughed and said Matt should tell us the body bag story. Matt laughed and called them the Body Bag Bobsled Team, but he didn’t elaborate.
Matt “got blowed up” in the war, as he puts it, and suffered traumatic brain injury. He believed many of the vets responding to VFSR would have similar backgrounds. “It’s not like 2100 dudes show up for water cannon and rubber bullets and nothing happens and they say, okay, fuck it, we’re going home,” he said. “Gonna be some serious antagonism with the kind of guys who will show up to this.”
The kind of guys I met on the trip were smart and restless. Even while Matt was an undergrad he seemed to create dizzying new opportunities every month, and he’d forget between our lunches that I wasn’t up to speed. There were plans with a mentor for Yale, the New School, Columbia. For forming a corporation that would mine lithium in warlord territory. He did return to Afghanistan in his senior year to do research that might bolster apps for grad school. No, fuck that shit, he said; he was moving his family to Bolivia, where he’d just visited to research the Cholitas, women who wrestle in traditional dresses.
In his time as an Army scout he was investigated twice under suspicion he’d gone rogue, due to the fact that he seemed to know everyone in theater, including the warlords and their web of relations, and he spoke Pashto, and he had a nuanced view of the society and conflict. That sounded dangerous to someone. But he was cleared, and after he left active duty the army sent him to interrogator school. Then he was invited to present political theory to the Special Forces in Colorado. Then the FBI sent some hard-ass from DC to interrogate him about his work on a school assignment, which involved wearing a traditional shalwar qameez to a local gun store, if I remember right. Now, a semester in at Northwestern, Matt was already becoming disenchanted with “sociologists talking sociology to other sociologists,” and he longed for activism and practical action.
Dylan is tall and lean and was an 11B, infantryman. He said he’d rather be there with us, on the way to Standing Rock, than taking finals. (“I ghosted on my finals,” Matt would admit later, “and don’t know what my standing on that is.”) Dylan has a wicked sense of humor that’s dry and straightforward, like many soldiers’. When we were separated by a blizzard a few days later, he texted: “I miss you.” I replied: “Miss you? I pine for you.”
Tom looks like the former-butcher turned bodyguard you’d like to have when you became a known figure, as Matt put it. Tom joined us despite being very conservative and risking family and friends’ disapproval. His own views had begun to change when Matt first met him and pointed out that Tom’s region was struggling, which Tom hadn’t really noticed. He still had strong beliefs and theories about certain topics, including the Rothschilds.
All three—and other vets I met on the trip—expressed a desire to be somewhere else, near the mountains maybe, but definitely outdoors and secluded, remote, where they could live for solace and in peace, sooner if not later. Many of the things they were doing for work, or where they were living, or how, which in another time might have been regarded as primary goals, or at least paths to them, were all felt by them instead as temporary states.
Matt showed off his body bag, a dark blue plastic sack with an industrial zipper and handles to carry a corpse—or the wounded when used as a litter. Tom wanted to know by then what the body bag story was. He hadn’t heard all Matt’s stories yet—nor had Adam, Charlotte, and I—and Dylan insisted Matt tell it. Matt’s a natural storyteller, and we sat comfortably in the quiet Lincoln Park loft in the flicker of the gas fireplace, listening for a long while.
In short, an Afghan commander well-hated by his own troops was seriously wounded during a battle with combined forces. When the American medic in Matt’s unit unwrapped the man’s improvised leg dressing to see why it looked as if he was still bleeding out, the medic yelled, “Shit!” Matt looked and saw that he actually meant shit; the Afghan troops had packed their officer’s wound with their own feces to kill him by septic shock. The man died soon after, and Matt and his men carried him a long way through harm’s way and up a mountain for dustoff. It was exhausting. At the top of a particularly steep slope, the body bag started to get away from them on the scree and snow, and since they were headed in that direction anyway, Matt jumped on and rode the bag to the bottom. Body bag bobsled team gold.
None of us knew what might come in the next days. VFSR organizers had spoken of “opposing and friendly forces,” of “platoons and companies,” of “adjacent and supporting units,” of “trained combat medics,” and that “Our center of gravity will be the center of our lines. We must hold the center and quickly replace any gaps caused through attrition” by an “Enemy [that] has rubber/plastic bullets, CS gas, pepper spray, and an LRAD sound cannon…we will likely be gassed, pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, hit with batons and briefly arrested… Most dangerous Course of Action – live fire with lethal rounds.” Clark and co-organizer Wood spoke of exploiting weaknesses in the police line. However: “[T]he national press will be on location filming our entire action which is why it is critical that we demonstrate discipline, resolve and bravery. This is not an action of violence, if you feel any potential for violence or antisocial behavior, do not participate in actions, contact us for resources to address that first.”
Matt said we should find a discarded roll of carpet by a dumpster somewhere on the drive out. It could be used to throw over concertina wire that separated police from protestors on the bridge over the Cannonball River. He wondered if he should take the rug downstairs; he wasn’t attached to it. His wife looked at him blankly. He smiled at the memory of a guy he knew who used to take a wooden pallet and run up and flop on the wire, and everyone else took the position by running over his back. Matt knew the angle at which up-armored Humvees and MRAPs would go over on the hills. Most likely, he said, he would just run up to the barricades and flip off the police. He speculated though about “suicide squads”—fucked-up vets with an elevated suicide risk and the PTSD impulse to find the next mission, which he supposed was precisely who Clark hoped to attract with his rhetoric. People like that, together or alone, might go looking to make a statement and find significance for themselves by going to Standing Rock armed, intending to kill police or die in the effort to take their position.
Adam and Charlotte were digging all this and filming some of it, between asking questions about their own gear and how to survive contact in direct action. The vets answered, packed, and went downstairs for smoke breaks.
Matt came up and said he believed some violence was both inevitable and necessary for creating the media show that would make a difference in the DAPL resistance. “Either they [the police and DAPL] do it [use violence], and then they allow us to film it and frame it as un-American, or they don’t, and then they support the idea that they view the Native Americans, which they have been doing it to, as less human than us.”
“So they’ll have to fire CS gas at people as a matter of equality,” Adam said.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Matt said. “Or not, as a matter of patriotism.”
“So you think it’s one of those fucked if you do and fucked if you don’t situations.”
“Well, that’s what we’re trying to force.”
“And that the choice they’ll make is to treat everybody equally.”
“I don’t know.”
“I wonder where your gut is about that now, if you think that the army [sic] coming in now will change the way that violence has been used.”
“I think it will have to. But I don’t know in what way it will change.”
I don’t smoke anymore, and my gear was packed in Lake Charles, so I sat by the fire absorbing all the heat I could, thinking things over. I never intended to stand the front lines, locked arm-in-arm, as gallons of mace washed over us, but to cover it, bear witness, and if that meant ranging a little to the side to get a photo and taking my own punishments, fine. I couldn’t do that if in lockstep with VFSR. Conjectures about storming the barricades were rousing, but I thought they could probably count me out, in.
Adam and Charlotte were lost in their phones. Adam, who’s adept at all things social media, said from the dining room table: “You guys, know what CNN’s latest tweet is, with Standing Rock going on? Cat Yoga.” We laughed. “What?” Charlotte said. She was checking her video gear in a Pelican case. I asked if she had an online portfolio. She directed me to it and watched along. It moved her, and when it was over she gave a little sob.
I’d been up since 5:30 am. The others had planned to drive through the night, and we were supposed to have left at 10 pm. Now it was 11:30. It felt as if we were missing out, but I knew we’d be on the scene earlier than the mass of vets. I was sick with exhaustion but strangely energized too, the old rawness of doing speed in the field. That was more than 30 years ago.
Tom’s Jeep had broken down, but with help from GoFundMe, Matt and Tom had rented a small SUV. Matt said Tom and I would ride in that, with the gear, and Matt would drive everyone else in his cousin’s car. We stood in the freezing street for one more smoke. The Brown Line runs against the back wall of Matt’s building, and trains screeched and scraped while Charlotte moved around with her big Sony, shooting video of fingers holding cigarettes. Adam was on his phone doing selfie news reports. I shivered, as much in dread of the arctic conditions at Standing Rock as from the pussycat cold of the Windy City. It was 12:30 in the morning.
Finally it was time to go. The two cars would stay in touch by text, call, and walkie-talkie. I was surprised when Tom asked if I could drive first. I hadn’t even looked at a map. He fell asleep before we’d left the city, and I waited for the dizzying stupor of fatigue to set in as we drove mile after mile in the orange sodium glare. The highways were as wide and empty as you’d imagine some enormous project in North Korea would look. In the other car Matt told story after story, racing, speaking of brokering peace between warlords, of how we’d entered into this moment with no historical referent, a moment in which we didn’t have any way of seeing what was happening politically or what could happen, of how there was no trust in the media, that we didn’t know what we were capable of, and how, in that, there was a comfort in going to this demonstration, in going to the front, going to a place that was inherently violent and putting our bodies on the line for the defense of the Water Protectors. There was comfort, stability, and purpose in that.
He drove fast then slow, and I lost him in the tolls, which I don’t think he even realized he flew past. After a while I found his car close-in behind a semi, with three or four empty lanes to pass in.
Because Tom slept, we were able to trade off and keep going. Matt talked until almost dawn to everyone in his car, and they all eventually ran down. Matt’s face was a mask of utter hopeless exhaustion, his eyes blown out red. We parked behind an abandoned gas station and slept a couple of hours sitting up. Across Minnesota, into South and then North Dakota, scattered impressions of fatigue and cluelessness, gas stops, road food, a Walmart trip for more things needed and not. We passed other cars of veterans, it seemed. One of them filled with operators, former special-operations types, who turned and looked at us in unison, cautious but not fearful.
The Dakotas are beautiful country—sharp little hills, farms, tight-packed dirt roads covered with black ice. We’d been told by a young Navajo vet to come in by the southern route, in case of police blockades on the road from Bismarck. There were reports that the police were fining drivers a thousand dollars for trying to bring supplies to the camp. We crept along, traction control slipping on, more slowly as darkness fell and we got closer. There were reports of Stingrays and Dirtboxes being used, of phones and laptops freaking out in camp and going dead suddenly. We turned ours off, though it was said that wouldn’t save them from interference and data mining.
At the Standing Rock road sign Adam and Charlotte shot video in the 15-degree night, my headlights on them. They interviewed Tom about what police might do at barricades. He spoke of risk assessment, serpentine paths, getting vehicles down to five miles per hour. “It’s all speculation,” Tom said. “We’re here to find out.”
We crept forward. Police lights on the road ahead were gone when we topped the next ridge. Matt suggested a 400-meter standoff between vehicles. The stars were thicker than I’ve seen since sitting in listening posts in Panama, the year of the comet. We passed Sitting Bull College, the casino, stopped for last gas at the tribal-run station. A guy buying homemade jerky said he’d seen some things of the world but never anything like this. “You’re going to feel like it was worth the trip,” he said, “I guarantee it.”
One last turnoff before the Oceti Sakowin camp, then an electronic sign that said Route 1086 was closed ahead. Dylan’s phone went from 60% power to dead, instantly. “So that’s a thing,” Tom said. The steep hills were slippery, and Tom pointed off to the right where treetops showed next to the road and called it the hell abyss.
After 22 hours of driving, 34 hours of travel for me, we saw the camp. It sits in a bowl to the east of the road, near the confluence of the Missouri River and its tributary, the Cannonball. Hills rise around it, and Turtle Mountain, which you’ve seen on the news, is on the north side. On Turtle Mountain, and behind it on the ridge line, were 50 klieg lights, washed-out dots of vehicles. Behind all that was the drilling site, and in the glare before it was the Standing Rock camp.
But this was not a camp—it was an encampment. Frozen dirt tracks weaved among tipis, campers, buses, tents large and small, cars and trucks, and small permanent buildings in various stages of construction. Flags ripped in the wind on both sides of the road in. Our cars nosedived down the icy mud to the guard post, and we were questioned lightly. We had no papers or credentials or proof of connection, but the camp guards welcomed us, seemingly relieved, which they probably were. We drove through in the headlights and flickering campfires, passing walls of corded wood, uncut whole trees, water jugs, tarps, boxed food, all the junk of outdoor living in the cold. Heavy smoke hung in the headlights, a mix of oak and sage, so thick it burned the throat. The place felt massive and imminently present, yet not entirely real. There were thousands of people around us, but it wasn't crowded. We were two days early and couldn’t find our contact in the dark confusion.
All of it was so not what the media in its limited interest, or social media in its limited context, had conveyed that experiencing it firsthand was like feeling a new dimension of awareness opening in me like a large subterranean cave. Singing and drums from the sacred fires came from every petal of the compass rose. In front of us across the Cannonball were the police and private security with their technology and bright lights, and behind us was a whole bunch of miles of dark road that got us all to this place.
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